Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Survey respondents who reported the highest satisfaction with local government services weren't inclined to support spending more on it—especially among whites.
You wouldn't believe it, with all the rancor that follows U.S. politics at every level—from local to state to federal government—but Americans are basically content with the governance they receive on a daily basis. When it comes to roads, schools, safety, and several other day-to-day services, people across the country report being more or less happy with what they're getting. That's one of the broadest findings in the Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll.
Some folks are happier than others, of course. But whether men or women, whether white, black, or Hispanic, in every region and locality, of any age or income group, respondents said that the government services they received were a decent value for the local taxes they paid. A majority of every single group stated so. And for most constituencies, upward of 70 percent of respondents said that government works just fine for them where they live.
White Americans in particular are very happy with local government. Asked a more direct question about local government in their communities, white respondents registered greater confidence than their black or Hispanic counterparts.
There's no real disagreement among whites from different backgrounds, either. Non-urban whites were slightly more enthusiastic than urban whites. Among men and women living in non-urban areas, 76 and 70 percent said, respectively, that they had some or a lot of confidence in their local government, compared with 67 and 69 percent of urban men and women, respectively.
Non-urban whites with a college education and non-urban whites making more than $50,000 per year registered the highest confidence in local government (76 and 79 percent, respectively). White homeowners, too, were more confident than renters. Only urban whites with a college education registered real doubt in local government, with 32 percent reporting not much or no confidence—and among this group, 66 percent answered more positively.
Among minorities, meanwhile, answers to these questions ranged. Of urban and non-urban minorities with no college education, 34 and 37 percent said that local services were a poor or very poor value for the local taxes they paid. One-quarter of urban minorities without a college education had no confidence in local government whatsoever. The gap was much narrower for urban minority men: 55 percent said they had some or a lot of confidence in local government, while 40 percent said they had not much or no confidence.
Measured still another way, white respondents were much more likely than black or Hispanic respondents to attribute good government to local government. Here, the results mirror some national trends: Respondents who identified Republican and respondents who command higher salaries were the most likely to say that the quality of government services was determined by local rather than federal government.
Overall, minorities were more likely to attribute the gains of good government to state government—with some exceptions. Wealthy urban minorities, urban minorities with a college education, and urban minority homeowners gave local government a slight edge (52 percent, 51 percent, and 51 percent, respectively). Among whites, only renters and young urban whites answered that state government helped the most.
For all their enthusiasm for local government, do Americans support greater spending at the local level? Nope, not especially. Asked a question about spending priorities, no demographic group was particularly likely to support greater spending for the services that they say they are so satisfied with.
One of the Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll questions asked respondents about a hypothetical surplus. They were asked whether spending more on certain services would have a major impact, a minor impact, or no impact at all on the quality of life within their communities.
Minorities were about twice as likely as whites to expect a major impact from a boost in transportation spending. (Interestingly though, in response to another question, when asked whether local-government spending on transportation was efficient, white respondents were more likely than minorities to answer affirmatively.)
The same racial difference held true for surplus spending on education.
And for spending more on things like police and fire departments.
The majority of all respondents, however, said that tax cuts would have a major impact on their communities.
That's hardly a surprise: Everybody-but-everybody loves tax cuts. But given respondents' answers about their confidence in local government, the racial differences in spending priorities have some implications for local government policies.
For example: Whites were far more likely to say that spending this hypothetical surplus on more public services would have no impact on the quality of life in their communities. Nearly one-third (27 percent) of whites said that spending more on transportation would have no impact, compared with 21 percent of blacks and 12 percent of Hispanics. Even though half of white respondents said that spending on public schools would have a major impact, 16 percent said that it would have zero impact. Far fewer blacks and Hispanics said that spending more on schools wouldn't do any good.
White Americans may prefer to cut taxes and not spend more on public services because they're perfectly satisfied with the government they're getting. Minorities also like tax cuts, but they see more benefit in spending more on transportation, education, and other initiatives—perhaps because they feel they're not getting as much out of these services now.
There's a gulf between whites and minorities when it comes to their satisfaction with and demand for local government. It's an enthusiasm gap, one that could have a demonstrable effect on voting behavior as the demographics of cities and suburbs alike continue to transform.
The Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,656 U.S. adults by telephone between July 23 and August 4. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. For more details on the poll's methodology, go here.